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John Calipari & Wildcats preview Georgia, talk state of the SEC & more

A big test is coming Tuesday against Tom Crean and the Dawgs.

Aaron Gershon A Sea of Blue

Despite moving up six spots from a week ago to No. 12 in the AP Poll, Kentucky has a lot of work to do to be a national championship contender like they plan to be.

This week starts a stretch of tough games for the Wildcats. They battle Georgia in Athens Tuesday, No. 14 Auburn on the road Saturday, host No. 24 Mississippi State next Tuesday, and then host No. 7 Kansas a week from Saturday.

Despite all that’s ahead, Kentucky’s entire focus is on the Georgia Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs have played the Wildcats tough the last handful of years, but Kentucky has held on each time. The last time Georgia has defeated Kentucky was way back in 2013.

But this year, Georgia brings in a new element in new head coach Tom Crean. The former Indiana and Marquette head coach is 4-4 against Kentucky all-time, most recently knocking Kentucky out of the NCAA tournament in 2016 as Indiana Hoosiers head coach.

Crean’s Bulldogs are 9-6 this season overall and 1-3 in conference play with their lone win coming over Vanderbilt. Kentucky only defeated Vanderbilt by nine points and scored just 56 points but, the Bulldogs had much more success defeating Vanderbilt by 19 and dropping 82.

It should be a great challenge, especially on the road for Kentucky. Today, John Calipari, Reid Travis and Nick Richards spoke with the media to break down Georgia, their upcoming slate of challenging opponents and more. Calipari also hopped on the SEC Coaches Teleconference to talk more hoops.

Here is a recap of everything Calipari and his Cats had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

John Calipari Teleconference

Opening statement …

“Tough week for us. Going on the road. I’m anxious to see how we respond because we’ve got two tough opponents.”

On Georgia being a hard place to play …

“First of all, I thought there were years where all we did was go to Georgia. I was like, ‘Do we ever get them at home?’ It’s always sold out. Somebody told me it’s been sold out since June. It’s a date marked on the calendar for the whole town. And you’re going in and they’re going to be ready to play – and you have to be ready. With that being said, all the games are close, tough, hard-fought games. I would expect this to be the same.”

On how big it was to get Ashton Hagans to “flip” from Georgia to Kentucky in the recruitment process …

“Well, we didn’t get him to flip. They made a coaching change and then they (his family) reached out to us about, ‘What about Kentucky?’ You know it’s funny how this stuff goes. Early in the season he’s struggling. Struggling to find his way, struggling to be consistent, struggling to play winning basketball. And then there’s a panic, and all of a sudden over the month he starts to get it, he starts to realize. We have a better feel for what he is as a player and now he just plays to his strengths. And like I said, he’s playing as well as anybody we have on our team.”

On Hagans winning SEC Freshman of the Week for a second time …

“It’s a great thing for my team to understand: The two weeks he was Freshman of the Week, he had five turnovers in both games. Anthony Davis was the MVP of the national championship game and was 1 for 10. All the players or whoever is around these kids that think, ‘Let them be the center of attention, let them shoot all the balls, let them be …’ you’re wrong. You are absolutely wrong. That’s not how they are being evaluated. And so it’s a big deal for me when this kind of stuff happens. And again, trying to get these guys as a group to play winning basketball. I’m talking a lot about it now. How you play winning basketball? The plays you make in the last five minutes that win you ball games. Any time – we did a simple little adjustment in a zone offense thinking they would know because they had to be taught this. They don’t know. And when you think they know, they really don’t know. Then you have to train them. You have to do it over and over. We looked so bad against the zone and then I looked at it, it was just we were tentative because we were unsure. So, happy for him. I’m happy that our players can see what he is doing and that everybody is talking about, ‘He’s this, he’s that,’ and it’s because of his strengths. Forget your weaknesses. Play to your strengths. Don’t let somebody tell you, ‘You’ve got to do this, this and this – things that you don’t do well – to really be that guy.’ Stop. Just play to your strengths. We’ll work on the weaknesses, but don’t. Game time, winning time, we’re not going to that. We’re playing everything to people’s strengths, or at least trying to.”

On his relationship with Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes …

“Well, there’s two things: No. 1, I’ve said all along what a great coach he is. He and I have been friends for 30 years, maybe even longer. Please don’t say longer because that means that I’m really old, but what he does – they’ve always played the right way. But here’s what you’ve got when you have a veteran team like that, a team that he’s coached over a period of time: There are points in the game that they’re empowered, that he’s letting them understand and work through things. They don’t beat themselves. So if you’re going to beat Tennessee, you must beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re not going to give you a game. And that’s what he’s built there. I told him right away, when this stuff, when I talked to him about Tennessee. I said, ‘It’s a great job. It’s not a good job, it’s a great job.’ You’re near D.C., you’re going to be able to recruit, you’re going to love the facilities, you’re going to love the commitment to basketball. But I didn’t think he’d be beating us this regularly. I probably would have told him not to take the job.”

Calipari Meeting with Media

On whether he’s more proud of Devin Booker for giving $2.5 million to charity or Karl Anthony Towns for recording 27 points and 27 rebounds a couple nights ago …

“Proud of both of them. It is kind of amazing. How about last night? Kevin Knox gets 30 and is the sixth youngest player ever to get 30? How about Ashton (Hagans) getting (SEC) Freshman of the Week again and he had five turnovers? It’s kind of tells him, if you do your job, all the other stuff, the numbers don’t matter. Why are you worried about numbers if I have the ball more or if I am playing more and what I have got? The numbers don’t matter. They have never mattered here. So, that is for the clutter to understand. I am proud of all of them. Devin doing what he did, it is a neat deal.”

On how ingrained in basketball the numbers are …

“Well, what you have is that they think that junior high basketball, high school basketball is the same as college basketball is the same as NBA, which is if you just score and be the man and shoot all the balls and la da da. As you learn this game and as you prepare yourself to be an unbelievable teammate who can play, the numbers don’t matter as much and the cream always rises. The guys that should be scoring the most, you won’t believe this, score the most. What you end up doing is, I am going to be the best me. I am going to be me. What does that look like? What does my best version look like? Obviously, Ashton (Hagans) has made one jump shot like week, just one, and was Freshman of the Week. What does that mean? It is hard. It is just hard because it is easier just shooting all the balls vs. defending, rebounding, creating shots, changing the game. Anthony Davis was 1 for 10 in the national championship game and was the MVP. But, numbers matter [sarcasm]. He should have shot 20. Maybe he would have gone 7 for 20. Maybe we would have lost, too. So, they are all teaching moments. All this stuff. For PJ (Washington) and Nick (Richards) to know that Kevin Knox, who they played against, they beat up and pushed and shoved, he gets 30 in an NBA game. Come on now. But, numbers didn’t matter to that kid either. He learned to defend. He learned to play harder. He learned to rebound, and what they are saying right now to him is, ‘Come on, man. You have to keep playing hard. You have to rebound more. You are a better defender.’ He heard the same things here, same exact stuff. So, I am proud of all those kids.”

On how they played against the zone vs. Vanderbilt …

“Georgia will play some zone tomorrow. I don’t think early in the game and I don’t think 40 minutes, but he (Tom Crean) will. He will throw it in at some point in the game to see what happens, especially if we’ve got a rhythm going offensively. But, what we did was, we looked at every possession offensively so we could go over it. If you put your ball above your head against the zone, they are not going to play you, which means they’re gapping. If you are 30 feet out instead of 22 feet out, they gap you. If you are never looking before you catch the ball, anticipating what is about to happen, you are not going to be able to attack the zone. If you never pass fake, you are not going to be able to attack the zone. There are things that I did, small adjustments, that I thought they were taught at some point from eighth, ninth, 10th – somebody showed you this – they didn’t know it. So, when I put it in the game it was like they were confused. So, we went over all that stuff yesterday and we will get ready for a tough opponent on the road that plays different and is a good team.”

On the importance of having four bigs …

“I’m going to talk a little bit about them. The advantage we have with the number we have, you’re not pressured to play great because if you just don’t play great, we’ll play somebody else and we’ll be fine. So whether it’s Nick playing instead of Reid (Travis), whether it’s EJ (Montgomery) playing in front of PJ (Washington). But those two have to perform when they get their minutes and they get in. We can’t do it for you, and you can’t make the excuse, ‘Well, if I played more or I didn’t play last game.’ Don’t. Just play. Jemarl (Baker Jr.) didn’t play well last game. The game before he went in and played his butt of and changed the game, so he played more. This game, he missed three in a row, he was tentative vs. the zone. OK, it’s not your game, not that big a deal. Let’s go to the next game and see what happens.”

On Ashton Hagans playing at Georgia tomorrow …

“Somebody asked me (on the SEC teleconference) that we got Ashton to flip. You changed your coach. It had nothing to do with us. If you didn’t change your coach, he would be at Georgia. But you changed your coach and then the family called us and said, ‘Would you have an interest?’ Yeah, we would. That’s how it played out. I’m happy he’s with us, and it’s a hard game for him to go back. My guess is that he’s going to get mauled by their fans. That’s my guess. Then that becomes does that inspire him? Does that rattle him? None of us know. Let’s see.”

On if he likes coaching against adversaries more than friends …

“No, I don’t. If I make it personal, I don’t do as good a job. I really don’t. You coach against friends, the problem is somebody has to lose. You hope it’s him, but sometimes it’s you. If it’s him, you feel really good in the game and then you look at him and shake his hand and you feel bad for him.”

On where Tom Crean stands on the friends vs. foe scale …

“He’s been a friend for 30 years. Friend, foe? He’s a competitor. He’ll want to win this game, and he’s going to build it up to be a Super Bowl. I’ve always respected what he does, and we’ve been friends. We haven’t talked as much, and not because he’s at Georgia and I’m here. I haven’t been on the phone that much this year as I usually am anyway. Just based on trying to – I was in here last night and had Tyler (Herro) and Keldon (Johnson) come up just to talk to them. My time is consumed with this team right now. Not in a pressure, I’m pressured. No. Just, how do I help individuals get better? How do I help them buy into their role like Ashton has bought into his role? How do I get this guy, this guy and that guy to understand this is what I’m asking you to do? Which, they all know, then why are you choosing not to do it? Is it too hard? Are you not capable? Tell me, why wouldn’t you? So, we’re still dealing with that. Someone asked me about Tennessee (on the teleconference). The best thing I can tell you, they’re not going to beat themselves, Tennessee. And, you can see they’re empowered at times. They’ve been together three years. So we’re trying over a three-month period to get this team empowered. We’re not there yet. Buddies of mine watched me coach the last game and said you’re dragging them across the finish line. Yeah, I’m exhausted. I don’t want to coach that way, but I don’t want to lose either. So we’ll just let them go. Yeah? Oh yeah, I could just see that. At some point, they must be empowered to know they’ve got to go do this and they can’t be counting on me to come up with solutions every time.”

On if he’s OK with Hagans going for steals since in the past he didn’t want his guys to take many chances …

“He has more room, and we let him know that. Tyler has a little more room to go do it if he feels it. Teams are all different. I’ve had pressing teams; we’ve tried to press with this team. How’s it look? I mean, teams are different, players are different. You let them play to their strengths. His strength is his ability to disrupt an offense, so let him go do it, and that’s basically what we’re doing. It’s still trying to figure out some other guys. That’s what Nick does for us. When Nick plays and he competes and battles inside and fights for position, he blocks shots and rebounds above the rim, he is a disruptor defensively. He disrupts them. They can’t come flying in there. They can’t shoot anything near the basket because he’s going to block it. We need to have him on the floor more, and EJ (Montgomery) is the same. We’re still trying to figure it out. He didn’t get much minutes yesterday. Again, when I watch the tape, he’s never bad. I watch the tape of EJ, and he’s not bad, but like, I’m saying to him, ‘There are games I’m just trying to win, and it’s not who hasn’t played enough. We get on a roll; I’m not worried about that. We gotta win the game.’ And so with all of these guys, I keep coming back to, how am I asking you to play? Just play that way, and collectively, we gotta be desperate. You don’t think Georgia is going to be desperate down there? They’re going to play out of their minds. Every game we play that’s the whole mantra. Let me just give you last game. Last game, he basically – Bryce (Drew) came out and said, we’re going to play a zone – which they hadn’t all year; played it a little bit but not like they played us – we’re going to slow the thing down and shorten the game. They didn’t even try to offensive rebound. I don’t know how they got two. They got two offensive rebounds. Must have bounced right to them because as soon as the guy shot, four guys were running that way, and the shooter ran that way, so you tell me how they got two offensive rebounds. Someone must have bounced as he ran back and hit him in the chest. That was their game plan. Now, you’re playing Georgia. They send four guys to the glass. All four come. They get it in quick and try to score in the first five seconds, so you’re now playing a team that’s totally different – good for us. It’s good for us. You have to figure out in March, you don’t know what you’re going to get. The draw, boom, and there you go, and then you have one day in between, bang, there you go. They all play different. So, this is good for our team, but it challenges young players.”

Nick Richards

On his play of late …

“I’m getting better, it’s just a long season. I’m trying to go hard every game.”

On how he’s feeling after taking a couple of spills against Vanderbilt …

“After the game, I felt a little bit of soreness in my leg, so I just went to the training room and got a little bit of rehab. I’m feeling a lot better today. Other than taking a shot to the head, I felt really good after the game, I was surprised, I didn’t have any dizziness or nothing.”

On what the younger players learned in the game at Alabama that they can use at Georgia …

“First game of the SEC, we all talked about on the plane ride back how it’s kind of hard to play in the SEC. It’s not like a non-conference game. It’s one of the biggest conferences in the country, so guys have to get ready to play every possession.”

On the biggest difference between conference and non-conference games …

“Faster, it’s kind of hard, you’re not going to get calls that you want, it’s more aggressive, games are kind of tight, it’s a balanced conference, anybody can beat anybody.”

On staying in the game after a tough fall against Vanderbilt …

“(Calipari) wanted to take me out because it looked like a really bad fall. I saw the replay and I was really surprised I didn’t really hurt myself. He was actually concerned that I probably tore something or broke something, so he was trying to get me out of the game as fast as possible. So I told him I was fine and he left me in.”

On how much he has embraced his role as a shot blocker …

“We just talked about blocking shots every day in practice. Coach is basically emphasizing that if I’m a rim protector, we’re probably going to win a national championship. That’s one of the key things we need to win a national championship, is a rim protector.”

On why this team has had so many slow starts lately …

“We just didn’t come out with the right energy, to be honest. I think the more we come out with the right mindset, the stars would probably go the opposite way, we’ll go on a 12-0 run instead of us going down on a 12-0 run.”

On how much Ashton Hagans has improved …

“He’s gotten really better. He’s playing both sides of the court. He’s getting points, steals, rebounds, assists. He’s playing really great for him.”

Reid Travis

On how things are going for him individually …

“Alright. Obviously I’d like to be playing a little better, finishing better around the rim, but as far as the process and things like that—kind of expecting (this) and the way I want my game going along, I think it’s all part of the journey. It’s been a little up and down the last couple games, but by no means discouraged or anything like that. It’s been good for me to see things on film, to play against some of these teams in conference play. I’m encouraged by that fact, that I’m getting to see some film on myself and continue to just get better every day.”

On how he stays positive when teammates have trouble feeding the post …

“I think it’s a two-way street. Like we saw on film, there’s a lot of times where we let guys fight around and tip the ball and deflect it and things like that. And other times guys missing it or looking to score themselves or things like that. But it’s just getting on the same page. No one’s selfish. We all want to get the ball in the paint because at the end of the day that helps everyone else get open shots. As we continue to play together, get better, on the same page, I think you’ll see the ball get there a lot better and we’ll be a lot more effective.”

On teams potentially using zone defense against them …

“Teams want to slow the game down. I think when we’re out in transition, we’re pressuring people, we’ve shown in some of the big games that we had this year when we can really sit down and play our defense, we can be effective and we can put up a lot of points doing that. So zone obviously slows the game down a little bit. For us, it’s just continue to focus on our sets, continue to stay aggressive, not letting zone take us out of what we do. If we continue just to find those spots, attack the lane, kick out for open 3s and things like that, we can still be just as effective even in a team plays zone.”

On taking pride in doing other things besides scoring to help the team …

“Yeah, for sure. (In) basketball, there’s many different ways you can affect the game. For me, if I’m not scoring the way that I want or things like that, I can attack the glass. That’s my mentality every game, is trying to attack the glass, maybe get some assists here and there, try and play hard defense. That’s the biggest thing for me, is it can’t be all be about scoring. There’s a lot of different ways that you can impact the game: with your energy, the way you’re talking, the way you’re leading. So, just trying to do it on many different fronts and some nights you’ll have that, where it’s low scoring or high scoring, but if I continue just to focus on other things, continue to be well rounded I think that’s just going to help the team.”

On what he has seen from himself in film …

“It’s just a process. I wouldn’t say there’s one thing that’s different. I think that’s just what comes from changing your game and just the flow of the season. You’re going to have games where maybe you don’t make some shots that you were making early on. It’s not right, wrong or indifferent; it’s just that some of those were falling a couple weeks ago and just gotta get back to that. I’m putting in the same work I was so I’m confident there’s going to be games that are going to come around where everything’s going to start clicking. That’s just kind of how the season works. So just seeing on film, as long as I stay aggressive, stay confident, when I do it’ll be just fine.”

On slow starts …

“That’s a point of emphasis for us. When you spot teams that many points, you kind of dig yourself in a hole. Against better teams, sometimes they’re not going to let you get back into the game. For us, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve started slow but we’ve been able to work our way back into the games. But as a long term and kind of sustaining that throughout the season, that’s not something that we can continue to have. We need to start a lot stronger and that’s been a big thing this week, is just making sure that we have a good start.”

On Ashton Hagans’ homecoming …

“He seems like he’s keeping it all together. Obviously it’s a homecoming. It’s nice. He’s probably going to have a lot of family there, a lot of friends and I think it’s a great thing to have. He should enjoy it and should have a lot of confidence going into the game, but nothing’s different from his approach that I’ve seen this week.”

On the importance of learning to win ugly …

“I think it’s important. At the end of the day, I think it’s easy to get caught up in ‘we should have done this better or done that better’ but a win’s a win. You should have fun with that. You should celebrate that. I think the coaching staff has done a great job at that. Obviously we’re going to try to improve every game and try to get better at the things that we didn’t do right at the game, but at the end of the day be happy with the fact that you were able to pull out some ugly wins and celebrate that fact because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win. As those keeps rolling together, we’ll keep building confidence off of that.”